Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I ordered Between the World and Me the same day I ordered Go, Set a Watchman. I have yet to read the Harper Lee novel (I’ll likely get it read this coming week) but for all the discussion of Atticus and race, I can’t help but think that this is the more profound book and the one the culture should have been discussing the last two weeks. I opened the book the evening it arrived and completed it almost 24 hours later, this despite one of the most difficult and consuming work weeks of my professional career. The book is that engaging and profound.
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son on being a black male in America, written in this year in which America has slaughtered so many black males. I’ve appreciated Coates’ commentary and analysis since it first began appearing in the places I read almost a decade ago. He is challenging, provocative, and eye-opening.
I could quote gigantic sections of the book, but here are a few.
The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you—the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.
Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race,” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones [a police man] back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.
And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.
“We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,” writes Solzhenitsyn. “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered vision of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.
There are already two people I’ve promised my copy of the book to read. I’m going to recommend it directly to at least seven others. I’m recommending the book, generally, to everyone.
View all my reviews